114 Days. Supporting Israel during this crisis.
By Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner, Senior Rabbi at Temple Emanuel of Closter, NJ
Eventually, Israel will regulate its breathing and start to metabolize the indigestible that happened 114 days ago. Questions will fester about failures and security breakdowns and hubris, protest movements and radical Knesset members all that precipitated the darkest day in 75 years. These are all important questions, and they should and will be dealt with.
But what do we do from the Diaspora to offer support in the days and weeks ahead? Since October 7, my heart physically hurts. Like it was punched. Hard. So what can we do now while we continue to grieve and worry?
We can go to Israel.
I have been to Israel now 3 times since October 7. Once with some rabbi colleagues and twice with my congregation. We went to console, to volunteer, to stand in solidarity and to bear witness. This is a moment in the timeline of Jewish history. We cannot sit back from our armchairs in the diaspora. This is a turning point for our people. We need to go.
I have traveled to Israel many times with my colleagues and friends from J2 adventures, who have been particularly brave and amazingly creative and helpful in creating meaningful (albeit tragically sad) and important experiences for us on the ground, while coping with their own ongoing grief. We have been awed by the stamina of our intrepid guide educators (whom we love!) and who have walked alongside us on our solidarity trips as our guides – some Israeli, some American, and some non-Jews – all who are identifying with the existential questions that they all face living in Israel at this moment in time. They took us to places like K’far Azza Kibbutz and some really emotionally difficult places that are by no means the normal spots we frequent on our “normal” trips to Israel. We realize that the Israel economy is taking a major hit as a result of the war, as it always does. If we can continue to go and support our Israeli colleagues, even if it means experiencing Israel in ways different from how we have experienced Israel in the past, it is up to us to stand tall in the face of that adversity. It’s up to us to help keep the Israeli economy moving.
I came to K’far Azza (and to Israel on these solidarity trips) now for the very same reasons I visit Poland; to take testimony. To refute those who deny our painful history and now reality. To bring hope and hugs to the suffering survivors and to bring a proverbial hammer and nail for when it is a time to rebuild. And rebuild we will. But this pain is raw. In the Jewish timeline of mourning, we have just barely finished the Shloshim – 30-day period – post burial. Time has not begun to digest this atrocity. We are far from the process of healing.
Heroes without Capes
Not every hero wears a cape. Israel is full of cape-less heroes. Scores of books will be written about them. Meet one. Dvir.
Dvir is the uncle of 10-month-old twins. Dvir makes me look scrawny. He is strong, tough and steely at first glance. His eyes and voice were worthy of a different body. Dvir is spent, exhausted, worried and breathless. When I met him, I got the idea his tear-tank was running on empty.
On our first rabbinic mission to Israel, post October 7, one of our very first meetings was with Dvir, the burly uncle of 10-month-old twins. These babies’ parents were murdered early on the 7th of October in their home. Dvir’s nuclear and extended family live in K’far Azza, near the border of Gaza. On our trip, we met with Hatzalah first responders who were the very ones who took custody of these orphaned infants early in the morning of the 8th of October when they could be saved safely. The babies were crying ferociously and were dangerously dehydrated. The Hatzalah responders called their headquarters asking for counsel. Never had they encountered an experience with treating babies when no parents were present or accessible. On this same day, we met the medics who treated the dehydrated babies and visited the same hospital where they were examined and nourished and reunited with aunts, uncles and grandparents.
On a different day during our solidarity tour, we donned military grade helmets and bullet proof vests for a tour of K’far Azza. Three residents who used to live there took us around and told us stories of people who lived in the Kibbutz. I intentionally use the past tense. They also shared the fate of each person as we passed their home. “This one was killed. This one was kidnapped. This one was injured. This one was a miracle. This one was out of town that weekend,” they shared matter-of-factly. Unreal. A few minutes deep into the devastation and horror, tiptoeing over broken glass and charred walls and bullet holes in every direction, the guide pointed out the home where terrorists used the babies to draw people in and kill them. The very same twin babies whose uncle Dvir we met, and who the responders from Hatzalah saved and brought to the hospital. We saw the remnants of their nursery and what must have been their stroller on the porch of their home. I could not believe how close we were to their story.
Then, we left K’far Azza and headed to a small village just a little North of Tel Aviv, called Shfayim, where my kids used to play in the water park during our summers in Israel. Most of the displaced residents of K’far Azza are making Shfayim their home for now. We went to meet these internal forced refugees and hear them recount their stories. Each was more frightening than the last. We saw the homes and destruction and their stories closed a loop of their nightmarish saga. Upon walking in to Shfayim, I saw a woman whose face looked familiar, but I could not place her. She was on the floor playing with twin babies. I had a strange intuition. Without permission, I plopped myself down on the floor where the babies were holding on to furniture, cruising.
I turned to the woman and calmly asked in Hebrew, “Are you Dvir’s sister?”
“Yes” she said with a look of some surprise since I came out of nowhere and clearly knew her, but still, little is surprising her these days. I then reached out my hands to the twins and one came to my embrace. I said to her, “These are the twins.” I did not ask the question. I was making a statement. She looked at me with eyes that said yes. No nod. No words. But we both knew. I kissed one of the babies on his forehead like he was my own. He is all our babies. I played peekaboo with him. He flashed giant smiles my direction that showed me his baby teeth breaking through their gums. He kept a keen eye on his brother. Thank God for those smiles, or I would have been streaming tears. No one needed that. These kids will have a lifetime of people looking at them and crying. Let them smile and learn to walk. On our first day of our mission, we met D’vir and heard his story and the story of his twin nephews. On our second day, we met the medics who rescued the twin babies and transported them to the hospital. We visited the hospital that treated them and reunited them with their aunts, uncles and grandparents. The next day, we saw the home where these twins lived and the place where life was ripped from their parents. The following day, we walked into the relocated community of K’far Azza, now in Shfayim, and the first sight we encounter are these same twins. In the flesh. In diapers. Smiling. Drooling. Whining. Sucking a bottle.
The twins’ story has been woven into each day and is living in my heart and head. It will be forever. These babies. Our babies. Their pain. Our pain. Death and life. Smiles and tears. Despair and hope. One thread weaving through it all. Is the thread making a quilt to warm us or is the thread unraveling the blanket of security and comfort?
Go to Israel. Bear witness.
Tell Dvir’s story and the twins’ story so that the next generation will never forget October 7, 2023.
David-Seth Kirshner is currently the Rabbi of Temple Emanu-El in Closer, NJ and has been very active nation-wide in the leadership of the Conservative movement. Rabbi Kirshner is the Past President of the New York Board of Rabbis, a member of the Chancellor’s Rabbinic Cabinet at the Jewish Theological Seminary and was selected among 50 rabbis to participate in the inaugural class of the Kellogg School of Rabbinic Management at Northwestern University.
For more thoughts on Israel and Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner’s reflections on the war and his recent trips, you can read his book Streams of Shattered Consciousness, published by Xlibris.